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Typing with Dvorak

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Typewriter

Most people take touch-typing for granted. They just assume that what they learned when they were younger – either in typing courses (if you’re over 20) or on their own (if you’re under 20) is the right way to type. This is not entirely true.

There are in fact, multiple ways to type, and one popular alternative is a system called Dvorak.

Dvorak comes is three flavors – standard two-handed, left-hand and right-hand. I’ve used the two-handed version for over 10 years, and have found it (for me) to be easier and more ergonomic than QWERTY, not to mention faster. The one-handed versions are for people with disabilities, or anyone who well, wants to type one-handed.

What about QWERTY?

Most people use the standard QWERTY keyboard configuration to type without even a second thought. And most people are pretty decent with touch typing using that keyboard layout. But QWERTY comes with a catch – it was designed originally for typewriters, which have a significantly different mechanical layout from the modern-day keyboard. Typewriters needed a layout where keys would alternate sufficiently and at enough speed to prevent the keys from sticking. If you’ve ever disassembled an old-fashioned typewriter, you’ll see underneath each key a long piece of metal attached to a base, and that it is possible for a length of metal to conflict with another. Of course, modern keyboards don’t have this limitation, and Dvorak is a typing system designed with this in mind.

Some premises of two-handed Dvorak is:

  1. To have the left-hand (the majority of the population is still right-handed) almost never leave the home/resting position – sitting on keys ASDF on a QWERTY keyboard layout.
  2. To have keys always alternative between left then right, thus producing efficiency in movement, and giving additional time for the other home to move to the next key.
  3. To reduce the distance that fingers have to travel to get to the next key, based on optimizing for the most common words in the English language.
  4. Reduce typing errors produced by fingers next to each other having to fire to type common words. An interesting side effect of this is that QWERTY errors tend to be wrong letters typed, Dvorak errors tend to be letters swapped around. Note than autocorrect kind of negates this in both typing systems.

Let’s take a closer look at this. On a QWERTY keyboard, to type say “Asian Efficiency” would require:

  • A – left little finger.
  • S – left ring finger.
  • I – right middle finger.
  • A – left little finger.
  • N – right index finger.
  • Space – thumbs.
  • E – left middle finger.
  • F – left index finger.
  • F – left index finger.
  • I – right middle finger.
  • C – left middle finger.
  • I – right middle finger.
  • E – left middle finger.
  • N – right index finger.
  • C – left middle finger.
  • Y – right index finger.

With Dvorak two-handed:

  • A – left little finger.
  • S – right little finger.
  • I – left index finger.
  • A – left little finger.
  • N – right ring finger.
  • Space – thumbs.
  • E – left middle finger.
  • F – right index finger.
  • F – right index finger.
  • I – left index finger.
  • C – right middle finger.
  • I – left index finger.
  • E – left middle finger.
  • N – right ring finger.
  • C – right middle finger.
  • Y – left index finger.

If you measure up the distances that your fingers have to move to get to the next key, you’ll see that Dvorak has a slight edge. Of course, over hundreds and thousands of words typed, this small advantage does add up in time savings.

This is not to say that QWERTY is a bad or inefficient keyboard layout – it does indeed work, and most people who type Dvorak two-handed switch back-and-forth between Dvorak and QWERTY all the time. I also have friends who type QWERTY in the range of 100wpm, so it’s doable. But it’s nice to have choices, and one of the primary advantages of knowing a second keyboard layout from my own experience is that typing QWERTY and Dvorak both use slightly different wrist/hand muscles, thus reducing the inevitable wrist/arm pain that comes from typing a lot.

How to Type Dvorak

Dvorak Two Handed

That’s the Dvorak keyboard layout, and yes, it does indeed look quite alien at first glance.

To set this up on a modern computer, you just need to add the keyboard to your operating system. In OS X, this is done via System Preferences –> Language & Text –> Input Sources. In Windows it should be under Control Panel –> Region and Language –> Keyboards and Languages –> Change Keyboards.

I strongly suggest keeping QWERTY as you’ll need it for certain things like keyboard shortcuts (copy and paste are designed for QWERTY) and working with certain applications. On my Mac, I bind Option + Space to fast-switch between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts.

Learning Dvorak

Unfortunately, I’ve never seen any programs dedicated to Dvorak touch-typing. My personal method involved printing out the keyboard layout on a piece of paper and placing it above my keyboard. I then read from a book, and typed it out in Dvorak.

Couple of tips if you’re going to use this method:

  1. Yes it will be super slow at first. But you’ll speed up considerably within 2-3 days, and almost be back to normal within a week.
  2. You can use key stickers if you don’t want to use a printout.
  3. Don’t try to learn Dvorak on a split ergonomic keyboard – do it on a normal keyboard first until you’ve got it down, then switch back.

Next Actions

  • Decide if you want to learn Dvorak – if you’re already a stellar typist with QWERTY, it’s probably not worth the time to learn.
  • Print a keyboard layout (or use the one above).
  • Grab a book and start typing!

Let us know your experiences with Dvorak (or touch-typing in general) in the comments below!

Photo By: Rahego

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7 Comments

Posted by Ana  | August 22, 2013 at 7:32AM | Reply

I’m spanish and, of course, I started typing in Spanish. I have to say that QWERTY is really good for my language (the only thing I find annoying is B and V being so close, it leads to spelling errors).
When I started using English in a regular basis, I noticed it’s more difficult to write. My fingers feel clumsy, because it’s very common to type a whole word with one hand instead of switching (i.e. words like “think” or “start”).
I’ll give it a try and learn Dvorak for English, and keep using QWERTY for Spanish.

P.S: For Ubuntu (and derivative) users, there is a tutor program in the repositories.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | August 24, 2013 at 7:44AM

Hmm that’s interesting. Isn’t there a dedicated keyboard for Spanish?

I know when I use pinyin to type Mandarin I prefer QWERTY (dvorak just feels weird for it).

Something that I forgot to mention in the article too was that it’s perfectly fine to switch back and forth between different keyboards. For example, I have QWERTY as my system default and just use a quick keyboard shortcut to switch to Dvorak when I want to type something longer.

Posted by Ana  | August 24, 2013 at 12:03PM

There is an adapted QWERTY for Spanish, with accents and punctuation marks rearranged, and letter Ñ added:
http://norfipc.com/img/articulos/teclado-qwerty-espanol.png
And, actually, there is also an adapted Dvorak for Spanish, but I personally don’t like it.

Posted by ADHDdude  | December 11, 2011 at 12:22PM | Reply

I wonder if this is a good layout for programming. The old apple //c computers had a switch on the keyboard for dvorak mode.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | December 11, 2011 at 1:59PM

Hard to say since we both aren’t programmers. I used to do coding for 7 years but I haven’t done anything serious the last 3 years. If you do find it useful for programming, I’d love to hear that.

Posted by Anonymous  | November 29, 2011 at 1:28PM | Reply

I bought a silicone keyboard cover in Dvorak from http://www.kbcovers.com/servlet/Categories?category=Dvorak. They’re kind of pricey ($30), but it also doubles as a legitimate keyboard cover, for an external keyboard or to go on your macbook’s keys (old style or unibody).

I got it about a moth and a half ago an I’d say I’m still not proficient – but after the first few days it’s no longer foreign. After 30 days it requires significantly less brainwork – the hard part is using qwerty at work and switching back only at night.

I treat it like a personal challenge, which is why I was willing to spend the money. It’s very very rewarding.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | December 1, 2011 at 12:35PM

Ah that’s a great find. I wish I found that when tried to learn Dvorak, that would have made it a lot easier. I have a keyboard cover from Moshi that I’m very happy with, but that Dvorak one can be my next one.

Glad to hear you’re liking Dvorak.

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